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How Exposure to Addiction Affects Adolescents

One of the questions on the ACEs quiz is: Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs? 

Addiction is a major problem in the United States. In fact, about 10% of U.S. adults will deal with drug use disorder at some point. Meanwhile, nearly one-third of adults will meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder at some point in their lives. 

But, how exactly does early childhood exposure to alcoholism or drug use affects the individual and why is it included on the ACEs quiz? 

Parental Substance Abuse 

About one in eight children in the U.S. lived in households in which one parent had a substance abuse problem that led to significant impairment in the past year. 

Parental substance abuse is a known risk factor for children and can lead to numerous problems with their development. It also has been shown to heighten the risk of drug problems in adolescence and young adulthood. 

Both prenatal and postnatal exposure to parental alcohol or drug abuse is considered a form of trauma and maltreatment. Postnatal exposure specifically can be considered a form of complex trauma. 

Complex trauma is defined as trauma that “is the experience of multiple, chronic and prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events, most often of an interpersonal nature and occurring in early development.” It can lead to many symptoms and one study found that 45% of adult substance abusers met the criteria for experiencing complex trauma. 

Despite the prevalence of complex trauma among substance abusers, there are few drug and alcohol detox and treatment centers that address this trauma that may be influencing or causing substance abuse in the first place. 

Along with the exposure to this trauma that can impact a person, environment is one of the known risk factors of addiction. If drugs and/or alcohol abuse are prevalent in a person's environment, especially at a young age, it can have a direct influence on their potential for substance abuse later in their lives. 

It is also important to understand that a household that deals with substance abuse likely faces other challenges that could impact a child’s upbringing. Some of these problems may include: 

  • Mental illness 
  • Poverty 
  • Abuse 

All of which also show up on the ACEs quiz and can help to further explain the trauma a person may be dealing with. In some cases, these issues can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children which unfortunately can make it even more likely for someone to develop an addiction. 

Children of Alcoholic Parents 

An estimated 6.6 million children under the age of 18 years old live in households with at least one alcoholic parent. Findings have shown that these individuals are at a higher risk for cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems.  

Moreover, studies have shown that alcoholism is something that runs in families because a genetic vulnerability tends to exist among these families. 

Because of the genetic factors, and other influences, children of alcoholics have been found to be 2 to 10 times more likely to develop alcoholism than other children. 

Along with an increased likelihood of developing and alcohol use disorder themselves, there are many different issues that can affect children of alcoholics, including: 

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome 
  • High levels of depression 
  • Anxiety 
  • Anti-social personality disorder 
  • Borderline personality disorder 

Addiction is a problem that affects millions of Americans; however, it is not just an issue that affects the user. Alcoholism and drug abuse are problems that can impact the entire family unit and cause a ripple effect of issues that can continue for generations.  

Due to the impact that addiction can have, it is vitally important that people affected by this, especially parents of children, get help as soon as possible. 

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Peton - Thank you for the reminder that addiction in the family is a major ACE factor.  In fact both authors (Felitti and Anda) recognized the tremendous impact of addiction on children.

  • The ACE Study provides population-based clinical evidence that unrecognized adverse childhood experiences are a major, if not the major, determinant of who turns to psychoactive materials and becomes ‘addicted’ (Felitti, 2003).
  • Growing up with alcohol abusing parents is strongly related to the risk of experiencing other categories of ACEs (Anda, 2010).

NACoA distributes a great program for children from families dealing with addiction or substance use disroders, Celebrating Families!(CF!)  You can read a bit more at https://www.preventionpartners...s/aces-trauma-and-cf (Prevention Partnership International are the program developers of CF!, working with agencies in California.)

Hi Rosemary, thanks for reading! Those statistics you provided are eye-opening and show how much of an effect addiction can have on people. I look forward to reading more. Thanks again.

The children should be informed that serious life trauma, notably adverse childhood experiences, is typically behind a substance abuser’s debilitating addiction, I began to understand ball-and-chain self-medicating: The greater the drug-induced euphoria or escape one attains from its use, the more one wants to repeat the experience; and the more intolerable one finds their sober reality, the more pleasurable that escape should be perceived. By extension, the greater one’s mental pain or trauma while sober, the greater the need for escape from reality, thus the more addictive the euphoric escape-form will likely be.          

Tragically, the pain may be so overwhelming that the most extreme and potentially permanent form of escape—suicidal behaviour—is sometimes chosen.          

Yet, in many straight minds drug addicts have somehow committed a moral crime, perhaps even those who’d become addicted to opiates prescribed them for an innocent sports or work injury.          

We now know pharmaceutical corporations intentionally pushed their very addictive opiate pain killers—the real moral crime—for which they got off relatively lightly, considering the resulting immense suffering and overdose death numbers. 

Hi Frank, thank you for your words. The stigma behind substance abuse is hard to overcome. It's a shame that many substance abusers looked down upon, even by their families in some cases. We all need to work to end this stigma and make seeking treatment the more natural response when exposed to these issues.

Thank you for this post, Peyton.  Similar to your point, "It is also important to understand that a household that deals with substance abuse likely faces other challenges that could impact a child’s upbringing," I wrote a post for ACEs Connection titled, "When 1 ACE Can Get You 8 More," linked here https://www.pacesconnection.com/blog/when-1-ace-can-get-you-8-more." The points Frank and Rosemary make in their comments are equally important. Thanks again for writing this because this kind of "dialogue" that's so important to have.

Hi Lisa, thanks for reading! I'm glad posts like these can lead to discussions like we are seeing here. Looking forward to reading your post!

Thank you for this post, Peyton.  Similar to your point, "It is also important to understand that a household that deals with substance abuse likely faces other challenges that could impact a child’s upbringing," I wrote a post for ACEs Connection titled, "When 1 ACE Can Get You 8 More," linked here https://www.pacesconnection.com/blog/when-1-ace-can-get-you-8-more." The points Frank and Rosemary make in their comments are equally important. Thanks again for writing this because this kind of "dialogue" that's so important to have.

The children should be informed that serious life trauma, notably adverse childhood experiences, is typically behind a substance abuser’s debilitating addiction. I began to understand this ball-and-chain self-medicating fundamentally as: the greater the drug-induced euphoria or escape one attains from its use, the more one wants to repeat the experience; and the more intolerable one finds their sober reality, the more pleasurable that escape should be perceived. By extension, the greater one’s mental pain or trauma while sober, the greater the need for escape from reality, thus the more addictive the euphoric escape-form will likely be.          

Tragically, the pain may be so overwhelming that the most extreme and potentially permanent form of escape—suicidal behaviour—is sometimes chosen.          

Yet, in many straight minds drug addicts have somehow committed a moral crime, perhaps even those who’d become addicted to opiates prescribed them for an innocent sports or work injury.          

We now know pharmaceutical corporations intentionally pushed their very addictive opiate pain killers—the real moral crime—for which they got off relatively lightly, considering the resulting immense suffering and overdose death numbers. 

Last edited by Frank Sterle Jr.

Peton - Thank you for the reminder that addiction in the family is a major ACE factor.  In fact both authors (Felitti and Anda) recognized the tremendous impact of addiction on children.

  • The ACE Study provides population-based clinical evidence that unrecognized adverse childhood experiences are a major, if not the major, determinant of who turns to psychoactive materials and becomes ‘addicted’ (Felitti, 2003).
  • Growing up with alcohol abusing parents is strongly related to the risk of experiencing other categories of ACEs (Anda, 2010).

NACoA distributes a great program for children from families dealing with addiction or substance use disroders, Celebrating Families!(CF!)  You can read a bit more at https://www.preventionpartners...s/aces-trauma-and-cf (Prevention Partnership International are the program developers of CF!, working with agencies in California.)

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